After the initial shock of Rita’s cancer diagnosis, several meetings with doctors and specialists were scheduled. A treatment regimen is recommended, followed, and monitored closely. It includes surgeries, chemo, and radiation sessions, but not without difficulties. Rita loses her hair and wears a wig. She is not comfortable and hates the thought of wearing it. A twelve-year-old Jason watches how his Mom is feeling gutted and distressed. Shy and quiet as a mouse, he appoints himself her guardian. Jason will not let any visitors enter the house, keeping all the doors locked. He holds visitors at the door until Rita has her wig in place and asks Jason, “Who’s at the door, Jas?”
Mildred is a quiet witness to these dynamics. John worries about Jason as he sees him receding further into himself. Mildred reminds him, “Still waters run deep.”
Rita’s illness takes a harsh toll on Brian and Kelly. Unlike the reticent Jason, both are outgoing, almost hyper, as are most of their friends. But now they are running rough. Without parental oversight, they cut judo sessions and trips short. They are at a loose end. Kelly’s cheerleading activities keep her busy, but these do not occupy her enough. Brian comes and goes to raid the refrigerator.
John and Brian stay in touch. Brian brags about his job offers and asks for a loan. Each time, John repeats his request.
“Go to school, and I will support you with tuition, board, and health insurance.”
His words fall on deaf ears. Brain invites Kelly to meet his friends, but John has banned any such visits or sleepovers. He knows drugs are being indulged in almost daily. Kelly still sneaks out. She gets caught and is grounded. Of course, it happens again. And the grounding routine repeats itself. The cycle continues, much to Rita’s exasperation.
One friend, Sue Janke, is an exception. She is not actually a friend but a student of Rita’s. Sue has always been close to her teacher and idolizes Rita. Her greatest desire is to graduate in math and be a teacher like her. She visits often and mingles with Jason and Kelly as well. They look up to her as an older sister, calls them her “babies.” A sorely needed, very loving presence.
John stays close to home. Not wanting to socialize, Rita asks John to work on the basement. He loves finishing basements and does a magnificent job within a couple of months. Complete with paneled walls, a laundry/workshop area, and a wet bar. A used pool table arrives, much to Rita’s relief. Jason and Kelly are now delighted to stay home with a few select friends on most Friday evenings and weekends. The basement is fulfilling its purpose. The kids are home, safe and out of trouble, under the watchful eyes of their parents. And the cheerful sounds of laughter seep up from the basement, along with scampering up and down the stairs for snacks.
Rita’s strength is waning, but she continues teaching. It’s been over two years since the first diagnosis. Lesson preps and grading help her stay focused on more welcome mundane tasks. Keeps her mind off her health challenges. She looks at her kids and sobs at the thought of leaving them. She knows she does not have much time left.
Rita asks John for a fishing trip to the Lakes region in Ontario. The brief vacation at Cedar Lodge lifts everyone’s spirits. A wistful Rita enjoys it, happy to see her family have a good time. Mildred stays back, pleased to have the house and time to herself.
School reopens at the end of summer. Rita and the twins were back in the daily swing of things. Rita has a touch of the flu and thinks it is because fall is approaching. It wracks her body, and she has to be rushed to the hospital. The prognosis is not good – it is now a matter of days. Kelly’s and Jason’s senses are wrought with anguish. Kelly writes of her pain and agony and calls the hospital every day after school. The nurses and doctors keep Rita comfortable as she slowly fades away and passes in less than a week. The cause of death is influenza.
The funeral is over. John tries to bring back routine and normality into their lives. He goes to the weekly pizza lunch outings with his lab colleagues. A nearby hole-in-the-wall, Al’s Pizza, is a favorite haunt. Oodles is another one with its beer garden. The flooring is a thick layer of peanut shells. Large bowls of unshelled roasted peanuts are at all tables.
Mildred has felt the need to get away for a while. And now, the thought of babysitting two teenagers is not something she relishes. She finds a place for herself and moves out.
The Turkeys invite John to their flocking. Believe it or not, the Turkeys Club is a bona fide ball club at Bell Labs. Its claim to fame is it is the largest club at this august institution. It also has the longest list of Drinking Only members, as well as the Regular Players’ list and the Substitute Players’ list. Oh, and I almost forget! Another favorite congregation of the Turkeys is at happy hour Friday evenings. at the local Hilton. The Turkeys fondly allude to it as the “Attitude Adjustment Hour.”
On such a Friday evening, John returns home to find several kids hanging around the kitchen. A very messy kitchen–a mini-disaster scene. Wide open refrigerator, and half-empty soda bottles, some spilled over the counters. Plates of half-eaten burritos, chips, and glasses are scattered among puddles of soda. The floor is littered with napkins and bits of food. One look at John’s face, and some kids head out with an, “Oh, we were leaving, bye-bye!”
Jason and Kelly stare at each other. John moves to the family room, glancing at the chaotic scenario from the open door of the powder room. He turns down the blasting TV and looks at the jumbled disarray here. Eyes glint at the cushionless couch. The twins scamper around to pick up the heavy cushions and put them in place. A sideways glance at Dad tells them he is not done. With a motion of his hand, he sits them down on the restored couch and lays down the law. The house is not a hangout when he is not around. It needs to be tidy at all times. And instructions follow. They must put away their dishes and stuff after their snacks each day when they return from school. Do not leave them lying around. He spells out some other rules. Kelly objects to a couple of the new directions. John shushes her. “You two will do as I say!”
Kelly jumps up and salutes with a “Yes, Sir,” and an impish laugh. Jason breaks into a grin.